An economic and civil rights pioneer, William C. Brooks long fought for the advancement of young people in the city that relatives say he adopted as his home.

A former General Motors Co. executive and appointee of three past presidential administrations, Brooks always remained grounded, those who knew him said. 

Brooks, who led several Michigan companies, minority business advancement efforts and the board of Detroit Public Schools, died Monday with his wife of 62 years, Elizabeth "Betty" Brooks, at his side. He was 85. 

"Bill was a true icon in our city, not just as a businessman, but as a community leader and champion for other black business owners," Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, a longtime friend of Brooks, said in a statement to The Detroit News. "It's almost hard to believe Bill had time to be successful at his own business because he spent so much of it helping others grow their businesses. But that's who he was, always supporting and advocating for others before himself.  And that may have been the secret of his success."

Brooks was a tireless advocate for the community, doing his part to help those who wanted to get ahead move forward, said his youngest daughter, Pam Tully. 

"The best thing about my dad was he was himself all the time and his advice was always 'you do you. No matter where you go ... don't ever be afraid and ashamed to just be who you are,'" she said.

Born Aug. 21, 1933, in Ste. Genevieve, Missouri, Brooks earned a bachelor's degree from Long Island University and a master's in business administration from the University of Oklahoma. He later completed an advanced management program at Harvard Business School.

Brooks served in various executive positions at General Motors prior to his retirement in 1997. He was vice president of corporate affairs, chaired the General Motors Foundation and was board president of Motors Enterprises Inc., a subsidiary that specialized in small business investment.

Brooks was past chairman of the Detroit Economic Growth Corp. and chairman emeritus of the Board of Directors of the Michigan Black Chamber of Commerce and Detroit Regional Chamber of Commerce, his family said. 

In addition to General Motors, Brooks served as CEO of United American Healthcare Corp. and BPI Communications LLC, and was vice chair of Netlinks LLC. He also made an unsuccessful bid for Detroit mayor in 2001.

Ken Harris, president and CEO of the National Business League, said Brooks was a mentor to many and fought to ensure economic inclusion for African American businesses and professionals.

"He always wanted to open doors for folks," said Harris, noting Brooks was the co-founder of the Michigan Black Chamber of Commerce. "He believed in youth. He believed in the next generation. You see leaders like myself and so many countless others who benefited from someone of his stature always advocating for and positioning the next generation to be in prominent leadership roles in the city."

Brooks was an officer in the U.S. Air Force, concluding with six years at the Pentagon. Upon retirement in 1972, he was recruited to serve in the White House in the Office of Management and Budget.

He was appointed operations research analyst under President Richard Nixon, assistant secretary of labor for the Employment Standards Administration under President George H.W. Bush, and as a member of the Social Security Advisory Board under President Bill Clinton. 

Brooks was past chairman of the Detroit Public Schools Board of Education, a role he took on in hopes of improving the quality of education and outcomes for Detroit schoolchildren, said Ken Coleman, a spokesman for the Detroit Federation of Teachers. 

"Even as a distinguished corporate leader in town, he cared about the education that young people were getting — or not getting — in Detroit Public Schools," said Coleman who was community relations director for the district from 2003-07. "He took his job as a board member very seriously."

Brooks co-chaired the first National Convention in Detroit and was a founding member of the Detroit Chapter of the National Black MBA Association and a past national president.

"He is a lager-than-life figure who really touched so many people throughout his lifespan," Harris added.

Visitation is from 4-8 p.m. Monday at Swanson Funeral Home, 806 E. Grand Boulevard in Detroit. Funeral services are 11 a.m. Tuesday at Sacred Heart Catholic Church, 1000 Eliot St. in Detroit.

Survivors include his wife, Elizabeth; a son, William C. Brooks Jr., daughters Patricia Elizabeth Brooks and Pamela (Peter) Tully; eight grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.

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